A Time to Kill
Produced by Arnon Milchan, Michael Nathanson, Hunt Lowry, and John Grisham
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Based on a novel by John Grisham
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman
Released by Warner Brothers

A Time to Kill, Joel Schumacher’s new film about race relations in the South, has drawn plaudits from many critics. Stanley Kauffmann, writing in the New Republic, hails the return of “the old-fashioned Hollywood liberal film.” While this movie has much in common with earlier anti-South epics—Mississippi Burning comes to mind—it does not depict the familiar battle between white bigots and angry blacks assisted by Northern civil rights workers and federal agents. Instead, Schumacher’s film puts a contemporary liberal spin on the great divide Faulkner depicted, in his novels about the Sartoris family, between the emerging, urbanized New South and the backward Old South.

The movie opens with shots of a pair of ugly, sweaty hillbillies tearing around Catron County, Mississippi, in—what else?—a pickup truck, decorated with a Confederate flag decal. After yelling threats and hurling a whiskey bottle at some young blacks, the two men stop to buy beer at a black grocery store. On the way back, they spot the 10-year-old daughter of Carl Lee Haley, a well-liked black who works in the lumberyard. After hurling a beer can—one of their favorite pastimes, apparently—and knocking the young girl down, the two men stop and proceed to rape her, beat her senseless, urinate on her, and toss her violated body into a river.

After killing the two bumpkins on their way to trial—and crippling a police officer in the process—Carl Lee Haley seeks the help of Jake Brigantz, a rising young lawyer and the disciple of a renowned former civil rights attorney. Brigantz (played with no charisma by Matthew McConaughey) is a perfect white-collar New Southerner: polished, enlightened, articulate, suburban, liberal. With his progressive politics and virtually accentless speech, he stands in sharp contrast to the assorted rednecks, repressed Puritans, and morons who make up most of Catron County’s citizenry. Although Carl Lee cannot offer him more than chicken feed for his troubles, Jake takes on the case in the hope of making a political and moral statement. Speaking before the television cameras outside the county courthouse, Jake states his wish to show that in the New South it is possible for a black man to get a fair trial and receive justice, that justice in the South is now colorblind. Enlightenment and rationality will win out over bigotry and stupidity; the New South will prevail over the Old South.

The brother of one of the ventilated rednecks, played by Kiefer Sutherland, doesn’t see it that way. Somewhat more clean-cut than his relative, but otherwise just as backward, he decides to launch a vigilante campaign of his own, but he doesn’t know where to turn for help. He is convinced, like everyone else, that the Ku Klux Klan has more or less vanished from Catron County, until a local Grand Wizard informs him that the Klan is still around—in fact, it is “always there, beneath the surface” of Southern society. The Klan official complains that today the blacks have everyone—even the federal government—on their side, avowing that the Klan represents the last hope of white people. With the help of some local Klansmen, Sutherland tries several times to kill Jake and his family, but is foiled each time by a mole inside the organization who tips off the police (though for some mysterious reason he waits until literally the last second to do so).

An interesting touch is the portrayal of the NAACP’s involvement in Carl Lee’s case. The minister of a local black congregation receives a visit from an unctuous NAACP official who claims to have “marched with Dr. King” during the heyday of the civil rights era. In the official’s view, Jake Brigantz is “out of touch” with the needs of the community, and must be replaced by an NAACP-appointed lawyer. He would therefore like the minister to take collections from his congregation—setting aside a modest administrative fee, of course—in order to pay for a new attorney. The replacement later turns out to be the notorious head of a legal “death squad” which intentionally loses the cases of accused blacks in order to make martyrs of them. When Carl Lee declines to accept his “help,” the NAACP official loudly denounces him for enlisting a “cracker” in his struggle for freedom. (Not so long ago the black demagogue turned up only rarely in films of limited commercial appeal, like the Al Sharpton-lookalike Reverend Bacon in The Bonfire of the Vanities. But today, even in a “Hollywood liberal film,” the hypocritical professional Negro seems to have become an Established Character whom it is acceptable to mock.)

But the culprits in this film are ordinary Southerners—or the Klansmen and bigots who act on what is darkest in the Southern psyche. Most of the whites are unsympathetic to Carl Lee—the street outside the courthouse is the site of tense and, in one scene, horrifically violent confrontations between black supporters and men dressed in sheets. The jury, secretly discussing the case over dinner, prematurely finds Carl Lee guilty of murder. Jake does finally win the case, but only through a predictable psychological trick—giving a lengthy, lurid account of the rape of poor Tanya Haley, and then telling the jury to imagine that the girl whose bloody, violated body drifts down the river has a white face.

In the entire two-and-a-half hour film, there is only one reference to an interracial crime other than Tanya’s rape. Before carrying out the revenge killings, Carl Lee asks Jake about the verdict in a case in another county in which “four white boys” raped a black girl. Upon learning that they were acquitted, he decides that the only course left to him is to take the law into his own hands. Fair enough. Of course, if we accept this as a rationale for murder, then whites would be justified in slaughtering thousands of black rapists every year. The white victim so luridly described in the closing scene is in fact too commonplace to be very shocking.

To Hollywood the South is no longer the irredeemable backwater of Mississippi Burning, but a place like South Africa, which is successfully overturning its old order and shedding its evil heritage. But the New South is admirable only insofar as it has ceased to be Southern. Jake Brigantz is a Southerner only by an accident of geography; he could just as well live in New York, Chicago, or L.A. The effeminate Horace Benbow may outlive the violent, rebellious Bayard Sartoris, but only by turning away forever from his customs and heritage.